Novelist, memoirist, poet and rancher, Paulette Jiles finds it hard to leave a fictional world she’s created. “If you spend time and effort to construct an alternative world,” she writes on her blog page, “why abandon it after one work?” 

So it is that her new novel revisits the war-torn post-Civil War Texas of her previous novel, News of the World. Instead of a sequel, however, Simon the Fiddler (HarperCollins) is a sort of prequel where we learn the story of how Simon Boudlin, one of the characters in News of the World, met, wooed and won the love of his life, the Irish lass Doris Dillon. 

It’s a story reminiscent of the Grimm’s fairy tale, the “Town Musicians of Bremen,” or maybe Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho in their crusade to save Dulcinea.

A DETERMINED FEW ON A SEEMINGLY IMPOSSIBLE JOURNEY

In Jiles’ novel, Simon has assembled a ragtag band of musicians, each with his own dream to chase or situation to flee. They’re off on a challenging, nearly impossible journey, dressed in rags and mismatched shoes, Simon with his fiddle, Damon with his tin whistles, Doreteo has his guitar, and sweet young Patrick, as percussionist, carries a goatskin drum and some dried bones which he plays like castanets or musical spoons.    

The outcome is no mystery; it’s a straight line for Simon the fiddler from page one of chapter three, when he falls madly in love-at-first-sight with the raven-haired, blue-eyed governess of the wealthy Webb family. He must win her, but first he must improve his station in life. He must be a landowner, a right citizen with a home and hearth and money in his pocket. Where can he play his violin to earn money? What saloons and bordellos, what weddings and lawn parties?

His companions wholeheartedly join the quest, and you know exactly where this story is going. Having already thrown your chips in with this scrappy redheaded fiddler, you and his faithful confederates are ready to take on every misadventure in their travels where they are chafing under martial law, the possibility of apocalyptic storms and the scourge of yellow fever. 

JILES CREATES AN UNFORGETTABLE, LAWLESS TEXAS MELODY

For most of the book, the men are hungry and dirty and running from the law; but they have their music to save them and salve them. “Music is clean, clear, its rules are forever, another country for the mind to go to,” muses Simon. “It existed outside him. It was better than he was.” Music is their safe place and their only hope. It keeps them together and feeds their souls, as well as buying them real food and places to sleep.

Jiles makes Texas in the 1800s hot and palpable for her readers, edgy and lawless, but the story also sings with melody. She did her homework about the music of the time, and one wishes for the soundtrack of the “endless supply of jigs, reels, hornpipes and slow airs. Some of the slow airs could bring men and women to a standstill, their eyes brimming with tears for a remembered love or a certain long-lost valley at twilight or another country without war, taken by emotions of loss and exile for which they had no words.”

Simon the Fiddler is a great introduction to Jiles for those readers who have not yet been introduced — even if only for the sound advice that Doris reminds herself of when she is preparing to make what might be the biggest mistake she’s ever made in her life: “Trust in God, but don’t dance in a small boat.”

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Paulette Jiles is a novelist, poet and memoirist. She is the author of Cousins, a memoir, and the novels Enemy Women, Stormy Weather, The Color of Lightning, Lighthouse Island and News of the World, which was a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award.

She lives on a ranch near San Antonio, TX.